As Nepal arrives on the South Asian political landscape as its brand new secular, democratic republic, it is ‘Communist’ China that is in celebratory mood. India is sulking. Beijing is obviously pleased with the election of a communist leader as the prime minister of Nepal, who, by the way, also used to be a ‘Maoist’ at one time in his long chequered political life. The contrast could not be sharper.

Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli
Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli

Beijing looks forward with optimism that the new political dispensation under the leadership of Khadga Prashad Oli as Nepal’s new prime minister augurs well for an intensification of the bilateral cooperation. It is a fresh beginning insofar as Nepal is returning to constitutional rule.

First and foremost, Beijing knows it can depend on Oli to do everything possible to ensure that Nepal’s territory is not used by Tibetan exiles in India to infiltrate the Chinese region and destabilize it.

Beijing enjoys rapport with all the three major parties that comprise the new coalition that catapulted Oli to power, notwithstanding their mutual contradictions. These contradictions need to be carefully managed but it trusts that Oli is an experienced politician.

The Chinese diplomacy worked tenaciously to court all the three coalition constituents on parallel tracks – communists, Maoists and ‘royalists’ – in a far-sighted approach to cast its net wide among the disparate political forces. It met with stunning success. Do not be surprised if China now reaches out to the Madhesi politicians of Indian origin in the Terai region as well (whom New Delhi regards as its ‘pocket borough’) – that is, if it has not quietly begun the spade work already.

China too counseled Nepal’s political parties to somehow bring the protracted 8-year period without a constitution to a speedy end, but it did not suggest what the constitution should contain. It stuck to its consistent neighborhood policy that such matters are the internal affairs of the country concerned.

On the contrary, New Delhi took a prescriptive approach and all accounts suggest it disfavored the election of Oli, who is well-known for his staunchly nationalistic stance. India’s main pocket of influence in mainstream politics, Nepali Congress, has been reduced to the opposition.

Nonetheless, it is not necessarily the case that China is raring to exploit India’s travails in Kathmandu with a zero sum mindset. Beijing stood by watching the unseemly spectacle of the stand-off between India and Nepal without fueling it. It probably could have tried to fish in the troubled waters, but apparently did not.

Quite obviously, China realizes that despite the flawed Indian policies, there are umbilical cords that tie Nepal to India, two neighboring countries with majority Hindu population. There is striking similarity with China’s approach to Central Asian countries, where Russia preserves great influence.

To be sure, Oli’s top priority will still be to mend fences with India, because in the ultimate analysis Nepal, a landlocked country, cannot do without India’s goodwill and will be sensitive to India’s vital interests and concerns. Suffice it to say, it is far from the case that China fails to understand India’s special interests in Nepal.

Having said that, India’s hands are full, clawing its way back on the greasy pole in Kathmandu – and that is not going to be an easy thing to do, requiring much patience, tact and tenacity. The Modi government has wounded Nepali national pride with its overbearing ‘Big Brother’ attitude, and a wave of anti-Indian feelings is sweeping across that country.

That, in turn, leaves China with a free hand to expand its ‘win-win’ cooperation with Nepal. China will feel relatively free of Indian interference to stymie its bilateral cooperation with Nepal. In China’s assessment, as a Xinhua commentary noted on Monday,

  • Oli, 63, believed to be a hardliner in Nepali politics, has said that he is committed to preserve the country’s national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. He has assured the Nepali people that he will strengthen bilateral ties with China and India, Nepal’s prosperous neighbors.
  • During an earlier interview with Xinhua, Oli had expressed his commitment to maintaining Nepal’s long-standing one-China policy, saying Nepal will not allow any external forces in its territory to work against China’s core interests.

China’s comfort level with Oli’s leadership becomes self-evident – the quiet confidence that China can hope to enjoy a level playing field in Kathmandu, thanks to the staunchly nationalistic leadership of Oli, which will not countenance Indian attempts to dictate to him his government’s China policies.

Paradoxically, the Modi government unwittingly created a dream wicket in Kathmandu for Chinese diplomacy. It can do with some serious introspection as to the root causes why this situation came about.

For a start, in any rethink of Indian policies, there is an urgent need to frame the question: Is there scope to work with China instead of competing with China, in Nepal?

Significantly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s statement on Monday congratulating Oli’s election as prime minister emphasized the priorities of “new progress in national unity, stability and development” in Nepal. The sequencing is quite significant – stressing the crucial importance of national unity as an imperative for Nepal’s overall stability, which in turn becomes essential for advancing the development agenda.

Doesn’t it bear uncanny resemblance to what India too says it desires to see happening in Nepal? Of course, China also favors an inclusive political culture in Nepal that strengthens national unity. Nepal’s unity and integrity and its development can be a common concern for China and India.

A radical shift in the Indian thinking is called for with regard to the development of its border states bordering Nepal (Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Sikkim), by making it a template of regional development. China’s ‘win-win’ approach provides a model.

Such an outlook can only strengthen regional security and stability, while also enhancing India’s ‘influence’ in Nepal. India’s accent in the near future ought to be on stability and development rather than on ill-conceived notions of regional hegemony or obsession with ‘influence’.

What India’s futile standoff with Nepal revealed is that the old tools of neighborhood policy predicated on the unilateral assumptions of its regional dominance, have become outdated and irrelevant in the contemporary setting. India is no doubt the preeminent power in its region by virtue of its size and comprehensive national power, but that does not make it the dominant power.

Nepal is not an isolated case of outdated Indian thinking. The snub administered by the Maldives to the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj earlier this week, telling India to back off from interfering in its domestic politics, is an eye-opener, too.

As a matter of fact, how Sri Lanka drew a red line forcing India to abdicate its traditional role in the Tamil problem also shows that small countries can be tough neighbors in safeguarding their sovereignty and independence. Ironically, Modi government has virtually dumped India’s legitimate interests in the Sri Lankan Tamil problem. The present Sri Lankan leadership openly brags that Modi government is the ‘most Lanka-friendly Indian government’ that Colombo ever came across in history.

The standoff with Nepal, Maldivian snub, backtracking vis-à-vis Colombo – these unhappy slices of experience during the Modi govenrment’s 18-month long tenure should be made the input for ‘new thinking’ on regional cooperation adapted to the needs of the emergent world order.

The fundamental issue is that – be it Nepal, Maldives, or Sri Lanka – the obsession with China’s growing influence in the region has warped the Indian thinking, which in turn prevents Indian diplomacy from coming on its own to realize its full potential.

India’s ‘influence’ in the region will depend on its ability to emerge as a model of harmony and development.

Influence, like respect, cannot be extracted. It must engender itself. Does Modi’s India attract Nepal or Maldives as a worthy model worth emulating? That is the bottom line.

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